Tea Leaf Nation

'Let 1.3 Billion Vote'

What would really happen if Chinese citizens could cast ballots in Hong Kong's referendum?

Democracy, meet the smart phone. Starting June 20, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers have gone to virtual polls, infuriating Beijing. Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP), a protest group that advocates election of the nominally autonomous Chinese city's chief executive via universal suffrage, held a combined online and offline vote on Hong Kong's future from June 20 to 29 that OCLP claimed has drawn over 738,000 electronic ballots so far, most via mobile app. The electronic ballot, which requires entry of a Hong Kong ID number, phone number, and a confirmation the voter is a permanent resident, allows the choice between three revisions to Hong Kong election rules, rather than the current system that cedes significant power to industry groups called "functional constituencies," which the mainland government supports. Chinese state media promptly went on the offensive against the nonbinding vote, but online response from mainlanders shows just how much of a stitch Beijing is in. 

In particular, the reliably nationalist state-run publication Global Times may have tactically erred when it ran an unsigned June 23 Chinese-language editorial titled, "Even If Hong Kong's Illegal Referendum Had More Participants, It Wouldn't Have 1.3 Billion." The editorial called the referendum "laughable" and in violation of Hong Kong's Basic Law, which has governed Hong Kong ever since British colonists returned it to Chinese control in 1997. The editorial argued that the Basic Law "reflects the will of an entire nation" and concludes that "on the core question of Hong Kong governmental reform, 1.3 billion Chinese have equal right to speak," versus a population of 7.2 million in Hong Kong. (OCLP organizers have said that while the vote has no legal effect, neither is it illegal.) In language left out of the English version widely cited in Western media, the Times declared that the cards in the hands of the opposition "are all zeroes." 

Chinese mainlanders may feel similarly hamstrung. Given that Chinese citizens lack the franchise, and thus have no clear mechanism to opine on the Hong Kong question, Beijing's insistence they have a "right to speak" is problematic. The Times seemed to sense as much, also noting that there would be "great chaos" if each Chinese locality were to undertake a referendum of its own. The argument likewise met widespread derision on Weibo, China's major microblogging platform, with many users lobbing a favorite insult at the Times, calling it "Global Turd," which in Mandarin Chinese sounds quite similar to Global Times. As one user from Beijing challenged, "If you've got the chops, let 1.3 billion vote." Otherwise, "don't count me among them." 

Particularly pugnacious toward the Times was Li Chengpeng, an erstwhile soccer columnist turned social critic who has over 7 million Weibo followers and in 2011 ran for the National People's Congress (NPC), China's rubber-stamp legislature, as an independent (read: non-Communist Party) candidate. (The election was held in the dead of night; Li lost.) On June 23, Li took to Weibo to issue an oblique complaint that never mentioned the Times, the referendum, or Hong Kong by name. But its intent was clear: "You talk about us 1.3 billion people. How come you only think of your families when you divvy up the spoils," Li asked, alluding to the fact that many party officials, including those in the highest echelons of power, use their influence to enrich their families. He continued, "You think the people are a powerful force behind you, but when we need you to help fill out a form or put your chop on a document, you look at us as if we were beggars."

Li knows of what he writes; according to Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, proper election papers weren't issued to candidate Li before the NPC election, despite what Li said were daily inquiries. Many readers likely sympathize, given that Chinese state media itself has reported that the average citizen must apply for 103 permits in his or her lifetime. 

The majority of the 2,700-plus users responding to Li's post wrote in support, but they did not confine their criticism to government efficiency. Instead, many who hailed from the mainland took the opportunity to criticize the Chinese government in surprisingly stark terms. Echoing a number of users, one from the large eastern city of Hangzhou wrote, "If the party wants to represent 1.3 billion people, it first must let us vote." One from the inland metropolis of Chongqing assumed the party's imagined perspective: "I have thousands of tanks, hundreds of thousands of special police, millions of soldiers, and 80 million disciples. But I am still afraid to let people vote." Another user from Beijing complained, as if to the government, "The 'people' are just a pair of underpants; when they are useful you use them to cover your shame, but [when you've got a good opportunity] you can't rip them away fast enough."

Many comments seized on the fact that Chinese citizens "are represented," but only in the passive sense; citizens receive nominal representation in China's NPC, but do not select those who sit. One user from the coastal city of Fuzhou admitted, "I have never used my political rights; there's all this representing, but I don't know what it all means." In a comment sure to raise party hackles, one user from Shanwei, a prefecture-level city in the famously independent-minded province of Guangdong, wrote, "A unified China doesn't help me individually. I don't want a country that big. Each province can go be independent, and we can live together with our differences."

Some opinions were more tendentious. They included sharp attacks on Chinese authority, and on Li himself; one mainland user insisted the people of Hong Kong were "enslaved" and still "far from waking up," while others hurled unprintable epithets, with more mild ones telling him to "go to Taiwan already" because the mainland "isn't fit for you" or criticizing him for walking "an evil path." Others penned apparently well-meaning warnings to Li that he may be arrested on charges of "picking quarrels and provoking trouble," the same fate that befell activist lawyer Pu Zhiqiang on June 13 for speaking out about the June 1989 assault on pro-democracy demonstrators in central Beijing's Tiananmen square.

A minority felt Beijing would emerge from any country-wide referendum a winner: One user from the southeastern city of Suzhou wagered that "out of 1.3 billion people, there are at least 700 million willing to stay the course." But such sentiments were few and far between. Of course, those who chose to comment on Li's post may be a particularly noisy super-minority among China's masses. Or they may speak for a silenced majority. For all their bluster toward little Hong Kong's election, party authorities cannot know for sure what the mainland masses think.

AFP/Getty Images

Tea Leaf Nation

China's Multibillion-Dollar Pastime

World Cup fever has led to a lucrative sports betting market there, with occasionally deadly outcomes.

Bettors beware. A June 20 newspaper report from Haikou, the capital of Hainan island -- sometimes called China's Hawaii for its palm-studded beach hotels -- reported the story of a local 32-year-old mother who lost more than $16,000* betting on the FIFA World Cup, approximately four times the annual salary in Hainan. Despairing over the debt, which she could not repay, the woman, identified only by her surname Wang, checked into a hotel with her three-year-old child and penned a suicide note explaining that she couldn't face her family after what she'd done. The Haikou Evening Post wrote that she shut herself in the bathroom, set up a small clay stove, lit a pile of charcoal, and waited. She soon died of carbon monoxide poisoning, according to the report, although the child was unharmed.

Police in the Chinese metropolises of Beijing and Shanghai are no doubt thinking of stories like this as they post warnings on social media imploring people to stay away from World Cup gambling. Despite China's notoriously disappointing team failing again to win entry into the tournament, and notwithstanding the fact that live matches air at midnight, 3 a.m., and 6 a.m. China time, that hasn't stopped Cup fever from sweeping a nation that loves its soccer. The New York Times reports that during the last World Cup in 2010, 17.5 million Chinese watched every match, more than any other country. Unfortunately, many Chinese love to gamble just as much as they adore soccer. The two are a potentially dangerous mix.

On June 19, Public Security Bureau officials from the Shanghai neighborhood of Jiading tried to drive their message home with a slideshow of staged selfies that showed a man's hand resting on the steering wheel of a Cadillac, then several progressively cheaper brands, including a Volvo, then the wheel of a tractor, then a rusty motorbike parked amidst alleyway rubbish. The final image showed the tips of two sneakers, perched on the ledge of a high building, the protagonist ostensibly poised to jump. The accompanying message: Soccer should be fun, but for those who make it their living, "the World Cup can turn into a world of sorrow." A Beijing police public service announcement, posted June 21 on Weibo, was less creative but echoed the same message. Don't go sleepless and don't pick fights, it read, but, most importantly, don't fall into the trap of gambling. "It won't make you rich, but it can certainly change your life."

Official warnings like these obscure the fact that Chinese authorities have taken an increasingly schizophrenic view of sports gambling. While the government cracks down on gambling dens and illegal online betting parlors, it also runs an official sports lottery that gives 22 percent of payouts to social causes such as sports education and welfare. Sports lottery tickets are sold at grocery stores and newspaper stands around the country and are increasingly available online and via mobile devices. During the last World Cup, China spent just $1 on legal lotteries for every $10 its citizens spent on illegal gambling, prompting calls from experts and the public for the government to legalize more varieties of gambling. The Ministry of Finance authorized online lottery sales in 2010 and licensed sites to sell sports lottery tickets in 2012. That helped spur Chinese punters to spend more than $21 billion on official sports lotteries in 2013, a 20 percent increase from the year before, the government-run China Daily reported

Reform of legal lottery sales has brought more money into Chinese government coffers, but illegal betting, which offers better odds, continues to be rampant. CalvinAyre.com claims China's illegal sports betting market is worth around $97 billion a year.

In a bid to poach some of that black market enthusiasm and recruit new bettors, licensed Chinese lottery providers shifted their marketing into overdrive ahead of this year's World Cup. Shenzhen-based and U.S.-listed sports lottery site 500.com offered $16 million to anyone who could predict the outcomes of all 63 World Cup matches.

The effort appears to be paying off. CalvinAyre.com, which tracks the online gambling industry, reported June 15 that the first day of the 2014 World Cup brought in five times the legal sports lottery sales recorded for the first day of the last World Cup in 2010. According to state-run China Daily, popular Chinese retail website Taobao.com reported more than 4 million bets via their online platform on opening day of the World Cup, and 6 million bettors by the third day. Microblogging site Weibo bristled with posts about World Cup wagers, with some liveblogging their bets. One sneaker wholesaler included screenshots of the wagers he made using Taobao's lottery app on his mobile phone. When he lost $320 betting against the Netherlands in their match with Australia, he posted six sobbing emoticons (but added he was still up overall). Others newbies were reeling harder from their losses and forswearing the practice. One user from southern Guangxi province wrote on June 21, "I've lived this long and never seriously gambled; I don't even play online card games." But this time, she wrote that she had chosen to bet, ultimately losing all of the money on her bank card. "It's a profound lesson: gambling is a killer."

*Correction, Jun. 24, 2014: This article originally misstated the amount the woman surname Wang lost gambling. It was approximately $16,000, not $1,600. (Return to reading.

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images